On 11th March 2011, an earthquake hit Japan. The earthquake registered as a magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, and it was so powerful it knocked the Earth off its axis and moved Japan about eight feet closer to America. It is the single largest Earthquake to ever hit Japan, and the fourth most powerful to hit the world since record keeping began in 1900. While impressive, the earthquake itself did little damage (according to the book, anyway) but the subsequent tsunami caused the most devastation. At its highest the tsunami measured over 40 metres, travelled at 700km/h and up to 10km inland. It caused 19,747 deaths, 6,242 injured, and 2,556 were still missing as recently as 2021. The tsunami caused a nuclear disaster at Fukushima – Daiichi power plant, which was a disaster worth a few books of its own. All told, this was one of the worst natural disasters to hit Japan and the world at large within the past few decades.
This book, titled ‘Ghosts of the Tsunami’, describes the experiences of the survivors of said tsunami. The author, Richard Lloyd Parry, is a foreign correspondent living and working in Tokyo. He describes his experience with the earthquake with singular detail, making one marvel at how glib people are about earthquakes that their reactions are incredibly blase. If it was me I’d be running away. Japan being Japan, their response to the Earthquake is incredibly muted, but as the author describes the aftermath of it in Tokyo we realise just how amazing the Japanese are at preparing for these sorts of events. Basically furniture gets thrown around, but not many people are hurt, and life gets to continue as usual – if it weren’t for the tsunami, of course. However, despite these preparations, lives are still lost, and the tragedy of these deaths occurring in spite of Japan’s preparations add an extra tang of irony to the accounts.
This book was a sobering, harrowing read. True accounts of natural disasters almost always are. The description of devastation, of being at the centre of the disaster, and somehow living through it are usually one of the most disturbing accounts to ever read. The worst, however, are the accounts of the survivors. Their guilt at being alive while their loved ones die, how they watched others being washed away with them unable to do anything, or worse – those who did not get a chance to even say goodbye. No matter the stoicism of the Japanese, and the calmness during which I read their words, it always seems as if those words are tinged with sorrow. I can’t imagine waking up one day and have it be the last time I see someone I love – to have to identify their corpse the next day, or worse, to not even be able to find it. These sorts of accounts always bring to mind a sense of mortality, a dread that this could all very well happen to us, and here we are worrying about things that don’t matter. As I finish this book, Russian troops have invaded Ukraine, and millions of people are evacuating their homes for safety. Could another World War start? Would I live through it to tell? I don’t know.
I cannot imagine being in a natural disaster. If the Quran speaks the truth, that God only brings trials to those who can withstand them, then I am truly weak indeed. In a global pandemic I was not affected, though my brother and my friends were. I managed to escape tsunamis, earthquakes and floods. I cannot imagine what it would be like to undergo such tribulations. Even reading them makes me wonder – if I were in their place, would I act differently? Would I even survive? If I did, how would that change me? I can try to assume, but I cannot say for certain. Deep down, I’d like to think that I would survive, but the truth is – until I have done so myself, I cannot say. And that scares me, for someday I may have to suffer as my fellow man has. And when push comes to shove…I don’t know if I will measure up.
While the book promises to tell about ‘the survivors’ in general, the author has chosen perhaps the worst tragedy to focus on, that of the children of Okawa Elementary School. As he interviews several parents whose children have been lost in the school, he walks us through their suffering, starting from the very beginning and ending – well, without an ending, as the grief felt by the parents of the children continues to this very day. Daily interactions take on an air of poignancy, of irony, when viewed in retrospect. With regards to the tsunami and the impending disaster, it’s hard not to feel a sense of unease to hear them speak of throwing noodles onto the pan, worrying about elementary school graduation, or of other small things we take for granted in day to day life. These mothers will soon send their daughters to school and never see them again for the rest of their lives.
After the tsunami hit comes the frantic search along with all the baggage that search comes with. The small, undying hope that somehow against all odds their child survived, the sinking feeling of dread when the impossibility of that survival is relayed, and the crushing despair when, through the mud and the debris, the bodies of their children are found. The Japanese commonly cremate their dead. The bodies of those found in the aftermath of the tsunami were so waterlogged, cremation was impossible and had to be delayed until they dried enough to make it possible – just one more thing after another.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the disaster at Okawa Elementary was that it could have been avoided if the teachers were better prepared. This is not to say that they were not given any sort of preparatory training or material, but rather they believed that no tsunami would ever reach the school, and thus tsunami preparations were of little consequence. As a result nearly all of their charges who gathered at the school according to earthquake and not tsunami protocols drowned, and so did most of the teachers, save for several who managed to save themselves. The parents found this strange, too, and began a years-long crusade to get the school board to take responsibility. Despite dodging said responsibilities, the parents managed to win a lawsuit against them and though the compensation was significant, each insists that it was symbolic. That they managed to get the board to admit negligence, and that they could be blamed for the tragedy and senseless loss of young life.
The book is written respectfully with regards to Japanese tradition, psychology and also with respect to the survivors and the dead themselves. There is one point where the author questions the Japanese mindset of gaman, which is described as an “unwritten code” of Japanese village society. This mindset is one where unpleasant consequences would arise for those who dared to take on the government, which range from social disapproval all the way up to denial of service. The book calls out several examples where this is the case, and at one point questions whether gaman is right or wrong in the face of such loss of life – especially of children in the case of Okawa Elementary – and whether the Western mindset of demanding justice from their governments at any cost would be more fitting. This questioning, I feel, is done respectfully, and while it does put forward the fact that perhaps a Western mentality is better, I feel in this case maybe the author has a point. He has worked for over twenty two years in Japan, after all (as at the time of the book’s publishing). Perhaps he’s earned the right to criticise the society in which he finds himself reporting on.
Don’t know what else to say anymore, except to highly recommend this book. It’s thoughtful, engaging and provides a deep understanding of the suffering undergone by survivors of a tsunami. The fact that it does so by focusing on one of the worst tragedies to occur as a result of the disaster only makes it more poignant. The author begins by telling us that on the day of the earthquake, he was expecting a child. It is, perhaps, the reason why the story of Okawa Elementary resonates so much with him – if his child had gone to Okawa, had been missing under the mud and muck that is the aftermath of the tsunami, or he had to identify their body, would he have done the same? Would he have disobeyed gaman and be seen as a meddling foreigner, all to see justice done for his child? As we explore the accounts of the survivors, we find ourselves asking what we would have done differently if it were us affected by the same disaster. Ultimately, of course, the answer would be no – these stories are stories of humanity, and as long as we are human we would act in the same way.